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A task for the ‘boy genius’ (Scripps Howard News Service) February 4, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Saddam Hussein is not the only one who can change George Bush’s mind about going to war. So could the man Bush calls “the boy genius,” Karl Rove.

While one front of the war decision unfolds visibly at the United Nations this week, an equally important dimension is playing out quietly in Karl Rove’s White House office. With war hanging in the balance, the court of international opinion at the U.N. may not be as important as the court of American public opinion overseen by Rove’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Two recent books about him – “Bush’s Brain” and “Boy Genius” – confirm that Karl Rove is President Bush’s most influential advisor. As the president’s top political and policy aide, Rove’s hand is seen virtually everywhere, from the Republican victories in the mid-term 2002 elections to the many new initiatives offered in last week’s State of the Union address.

In a rare interview with reporters, Rove insisted that he is no Svengali, dominating the president’s thinking. But having the pulse of the American voter and the ear of the president makes Karl Rove a powerful man, despite his preference to remain behind the scenes.

Americans are uncomfortable, however, with the role political advisors like Rove play in the White House. There was a sense of relief when James Carville, the man who devised Bill Clinton’s election strategy, did not seek a government post. Even so, Clinton was widely criticized for using opinion polls to make decisions as president.

Karl Rove’s influence on President Bush’s policy decisions has similarly been attached. When John DiIulio resigned as Bush’s office of faith-based initiatives, he charged the White House with making decisions based upon politics, not sound policy. While not mentioning Rove by name, DiIulio criticized the “Mayberry Machiavellis” who were running the White House.

But is it really wrong for a democratic leader to stay in close touch with the thinking of the people? Dick Morris, who played a similar role for President Clinton until he resigned in disgrace, explained that democracy does not have an engine but, like a sailboat, is powered by winds. The country can only go where the people’s energies will take it. Clinton, according to Morris, knew where he wanted to go and used polling, not to fix the destination, but to see which aspects of the destination created public support for the journey. Sailing uses the winds of public opinion to tack toward the shore and a wise leader finds and uses those winds.

In that sense, shouldn’t we be grateful that Rove keeps the president in tune with voter preferences? What will Rove tell the president about American public opinion and the war? Until the State of the Union message, he would have to say that just over 50% of Americans favor military action against Saddam. The percentage of Americans favoring an invasion of Iraq has declined steadily in recent months, and those who oppose a war have increased. There is significant concern about going forward if there is not United Nations support, or at least a coalition of allies participating.

The State of the Union message apparently stopped the decline in support for war and started the numbers moving upward again. The most recent polls show Americans in support of war now over 60 percent. Both at home and abroad, however, a second U.N. resolution specifically authorizing military force would further bolster support for war. Rove believes that Americans will back the war in even larger numbers once the fighting starts.

In addition to the group favoring war and those in opposition, there is a third group of Americans who need to hear more information. If, as Bush’s advisors pointed out, there will be additional presidential speeches about Iraq, perhaps Rove can advise the president to target this group. Timing is one important question: Why now, why the hurry, why not wait for more inspections and more international support? The need for a preemptive strike is also on their minds: What is the pressing danger and why will containment not work? And the need to go it alone is an issue: Why should one country – or even several – enforce a Security Council resolution?

When dubious reporters met with Rove recently, they left generally impressed that the president had such an insightful leader and good communicator on his staff. If Karl Rove can help the president find his way through these decisions of war and peace, maybe he really is a genius.

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